When the All Blacks met a Russian in a rush

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The Independent Online

A small screen flickers in the World Rugby Museum at Twickenham, recalling England's greatest day and greatest try against mighty New Zealand. It was January 1936, Prince Alexander Obolensky was a month short of his 20th birthday and the second of his two tries, captured by cinema newsreels as he raced past bamboozled All Blacks, symbolised a sporting spirit set free. Four years later, Obolensky was dead, cut down in a wartime flying accident after he had joined the RAF.

The only Russian to play rugby for England was buried in Ipswich, near the site of his fatal crash. Obolensky's brief but shining exploits are to be commemorated by a statue funded by multiple donors, including Chelsea FC's billionaire owner, Roman Abramovich, and the Rugby Football Union. Abramovich's cheque, believed to be for £5,000, is a rare contribution outside his Russian charities. Harry Gray, the sculptor whose Battle of Britain memorial stands in Dover, is nearing the end of his work, to be unveiled in Ipswich in January.

Obolensky came to Britain as a toddler when his father, an officer in the Tsar's Imperial Horse Guards, fled the Russian Revolution. It caused a kerfuffle when "Obo" was picked for his England debut – he had yet to be formally naturalised – but the blue-eyed blond, who downed a dozen oysters before playing, won the gainsayers over. He was studying at Oxford and had scored a 75-yard try for the Dark Blues against the New Zealanders earlier in the tour.

Pathe Gazette said: "The All Blacks' recent whacking by Wales [13-12] has given England new hope, and if they don't put up a good show the Prince of Wales and 70,000 others will want to know why." The prince on the pitch thrilled the one in the stands and the 13-0 win – England's first over the All Blacks – was a thrashing, three tries to nil when a try was worth three points. It remains their biggest margin of victory over New Zealand in 103 years and 31 Tests.

Obolensky's first try featured a classic in-and-out swerve to beat the full-back. The second was a pearl of Russian unorthodoxy. An athletics Blue who ran 100 yards in 10 seconds, he took a pass from centre Peter Cranmer and ran diagonally from his station on the right wing to the opposite corner, evading eight or nine defenders.

A cartoon in the Daily Mail hailed "The Russian prince... built better than any five-year plan." Geoffrey Archer was 16 and watching in the West Stand. "He seemed almost to be running backwards, it was quite incomprehensible," he says, now 89. "We were so excited, though we never realised it would make history."

Newspapers pictured the prince at a bow-tie dinner with his arm in a sling: "Prince Obolensky bitten by a dog... he may not play again this season." Sadly, the dashing Russian's seasons were far too few.

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